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Loss of rail chief may be trouble sign for NY high speed rail efforts

(The following story by Eric Anderson appeared on the Albany Times-Union website on April 19, 2010.)

ALBANY, N.Y. — The state's high-speed rail chief has stepped down and rail advocates say the program is in trouble.

Ann Purdue has resigned and will leave her job as manager of the state's high-speed rail program April 30. Purdue couldn't be reached Monday for comment.

The state's rail planning was criticized when New York was awarded just $151 million out of a pool of $8.5 billion offered by the Obama administration's high-speed rail program.

"I can't describe my disappointment," Buffalo Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, a long-time rail advocate, said Monday afternoon. "The $151 million, which everyone has tried to portray is good news, is a ridiculous amount of money. I think the state application was a poor one."

Purdue last month had been scheduled to speak at the annual meeting of the Empire State Passengers Association in Schenectady, at which Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman also spoke. But Purdue canceled at the last minute.

Sources said that she didn't want to lie to passenger rail advocates about what the program was truly seeking.

The New York Post reported Monday that state officials had agreed in a memorandum of understanding with CSX Transportation, which owns most the tracks over which Amtrak operates in New York state, that they wouldn't seek to operate trains at more than 90 mph along the corridor between Schenectady and Buffalo.

But when administration officials later began demanding CSX permit speeds up to 110 mph, ongoing negotiations with the freight railroad fell apart.

CSX didn't return calls for comment.

Publicly, the administration has always touted the 110 mph speed as its goal.

Hoyt said that to get even the $151 million in federal funding, the DOT will need agreements with both CSX and Amtrak by September on goals for the program.

"My understanding is we're a long way from an agreement with CSX, and Amtrak has some reservations as well," Hoyt said.

"We're certainly disappointed at Ann's departure," Bruce Becker, president of the Empire State Passengers Association, said Monday. "She had brought a wealth of knowledge to the table with negotiations. We would urge all the parties -- DOT, CSX and Amtrak -- to come to common ground as to how the high-speed rail program" will proceed.

The program has stumbled along since the mid-1970s, when the Carey administration invested in track improvements that allowed 110 mph speeds on portions of track south of Rensselaer, and purchased new passenger rail equipment.

But a second track to alleviate bottlenecks between Albany and Schenectady has been decades in the planning, and no work has yet been done. A plan to rebuild turbotrains purchased in the 1970s also foundered.

The rail plan had included a third track between Schenectady and Buffalo dedicated solely to passenger trains. But it's not clear whether CSX also would limit speeds on this separate track to 90 mph.

"Ninety miles per hour is not high-speed rail," Hoyt said.

He has called for formation of a high-speed rail authority similar to those in Florida and California because he said passenger rail is an "afterthought" at the DOT.

California received $2.25 billion in the first round of high-speed rail funding, while Florida received $1.25 billion.

"New York," Hoyt said, "simply is not ready for prime time."

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

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